Racer Sessions

Sundays, 8-10pm at Cafe Racer in Seattle, WA

Aaron Otheim - March 14th, 2010


Shaping Sound

The “Theme”

This Sunday, we’re going to explore parameters that help shape and focus the sound of group improvisations. The idea is to limit the number of compositional decisions that have to be made in real time so that performers pursue a clear musical trajectory together when improvising a piece. I’ll be debuting an original composition on keyboard with David Balatero.

What’s Goin’ Down on Sunday?

There will be two parts to the session on Sunday. I’ll provide specific parameters that will guide the first several improvisations, and the rest will remain completely open. Participants are welcome to supply their own set of parameters for these later jams. We’ll have a short discussion afterwards to talk about the success of this approach.

In preparation for Sunday, think of different parameters that could help focus a free improvisation.

In particular, consider what kinds of limitations would encourage not only a unique sound but also a unique trajectory. For example, insisting that everyone jam on major seventh chords might have a distinct harmonic effect, but unless we’re seeking some kind of major seventh nirvana, it probably won’t encourage much exploration. On the other hand, being a little more specific about malleable elements such as timbre or texture might not only suggest a distinct sound or vibe but may also give the piece some place to go. For instance, directing all the performers to begin on their lowest possible note at the beginning of the improvisation would instantly bestow the piece with a certain harmonic flavor, and since this directive only addresses the beginning of the improvisation, performers would be free to wander from that initial parameter. Let’s see how specific we can be with our parameters without stifling spontaneity!

To encourage timbral and textural creativity, we’re going to go without a drum set for this session. Instead, drummers are invited to bring one drum, kit piece or percussion instrument to the session. Various drums and percussion instruments will also be supplied. Trust me – I possess no vendetta against drummers. The presence of a full set does, however, tend to encourage louder volumes as well as a certain improvisational approach (intensification by volume). Drummers should instead try to get as many sounds as possible out of a single drum or kit piece. For any remaining skeptics out there, please consult the following… :)


The Composition

Here’s some background information for the piece you will hear on Sunday. It was inspired partly by an affinity I have for classical chamber music, particularly works written in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Instead of trying to compose an exact replica of a work from this era, I decided to focus on what I personally enjoy most about the sound these works, namely the instrumentation, harmonic language, and textural elements.

The primary organizational and dramatic devices in this composition is sound. The sound of the piano and cello are manipulated through keyboard parameters and effects to emphasize timbral similarities between the two instruments. Eventually, the sounds diverge from one another, allowing more defined textural, harmonic and even stylistic elements to come into focus. Regardless of people’s affinities for the genre of late Romantic chamber music, it is my hope that the progression of the sound – from ambiguity to clarity – supplies most of the meaning and interest in this piece.

The format and presentation of the piece was inspired by the work of noise artists I’ve heard here in Seattle, particularly KRGA (Kristian Garrard). Other sources of inspiration include the work of composers Charles Ives and Arvo Part, who candidly reference and manipulate crystallized styles in their compositions to musical effect. I’ve also lately been checking out at an album called “Living Room Etude” by a pianist Dave Palmer, in which different mic placements are used to give each track a distinct character.